Take Me (Back) To the Water: An Interview with Jim Linderman


A little while ago, I noted on the blog a newly published collection of beautifully real and worn photographs of baptismal scenes from the earlier twentieth century, along with an accompanying CD, Take Me To the Water. This book comes from the collector Jim Linderman, who blogs about his own work on this particular project here, and reflects more broadly on free lance collecting, folk art, ephemera, and curiosities at Dull Tool Dim Bulb.

The combination of photographs, capturing emotional experience in unselfconscious ways, and the CD soundtrack bring alive a world of religious ritual in ways that the writer Luc Sante briefly suggests in his preface to the book. Below is an interview I've conducted with Linderman, in which he talks about this work, his feeling for these baptismal photographs, and his philosophy of collecting and presenting his work.

1) First, Jim, you are a collector of everything from toy plows to homemade dolls to old recordings, and have been for quite a long time. I'm not a collector; I always want to get rid of/throw out stuff. So, explain the collecting impulse to me -- what drives you in that direction? And, where do you find room for all your stuff?

Editing is the secret. What I've assembled has always been manageable. Other than a few pieces of folk art furniture, virtually everything fits in a few shoe boxes. That's one beauty of photographs...for a small flat object, they pack a large visual punch. I lived for decades in a small, narrow, four room railroad apartment near Times Square and never had a problem squeezing things in. Andy Rooney, who I worked with while at CBS News long ago, once told me to take out an old book from the house every time he brought a new one in. That's the key...weeding and upgrading.

Take Me to the Water from Dust-to-Digital on Vimeo.

Collecting comes naturally to me. Not only do I enjoy looking for things which have been neglected or passed over, the hunt wakes me up in the morning. When I was healthy and young, a 500 mile drive for a flea market was nothing...now I use the web. Everyone should collect something, even if only interesting rocks. Everything looks better in groups of three or more.

2) Most people who are into collections of folk religious stuff fall in love with the documents and recordings of religion. But you are not driven by a religious impulse to collect this material, but something else. What is that? What fed your passion for old baptismal photographs and recordings?

I had originally conceived the project as a response to Jimmy Allen's book Without Sanctuary, which documents through antique photographs African-Americans being lynched. It was a controversial but most successful project of considerable historical value. Jimmy's book was a model for future photographic projects. He presented the photos, many which were crumpled and torn, as historical documents as much as images. There was no embellishment, cropping or cleaning up. More importatanly the pictures often had participants identifled by pen marks or notes on the reverse. Photographs have age and wear like any other object, and over time, important ones gain legitimacy through the aging process. As you might imagine, original images of people being murdered are not easy to find, but Mr. Allen was fearless and he managed to ferret them out. Many of the photographs were what are known as "real photo post cards" which are actually "limited editons" of a sort, printed by a cameraman in quantities of a dozen or a hundred, depending on what he perceived as a market...possibly one copy for each attendee. As frightening as the photos were, the faces of the participants scared Jimmy the most, they often smiled into the camera seemingly not even affected by the horrible event taking place behind them.

I had seen a photograph by W.P.A photographer Doris Ullman depicting a river baptism, thought it exceptionally beautiful and collected a few similar images when I could find them. When I saw Allen's book, I realized there was a need to assemble and preserve other events of a vernacular nature and that there might even be a market for them. At the least, the collection would be a contribution to our shared culture. I didn't initially recognize the collection as a spiritual antidote to Allen's collection, but the feel of the event, the spectacle and the participants had a similar feel with a more positive appeal. I was also on a sort of mission to convince photography collectors that condition matters far more than the "feel" of a photo...paper has texture, form and age...and I found photography folks were far too concerned with pristine condition. I like wear.

3) Your material has been put out by Dust to Digital, the remarkable Atlanta outfit best known probably for their collection Goodbye Babylon, for my money the greatest compilation of American religious music ever assembled. How did you hook up with them, and describe the experience of putting out a book along with a CD?

I've always prided myself at sorting through the commercial fluff and finding some authenticity. Early recordings, in particular blues, started interesting me as young as junior high...and while my older sister listened to Dylan, I was listening to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Music from my local public library. I pursue music vigorously, and had always held gospel in reserve as the last area to explore. Goodbye Babylon did it for me. I admired their work very much. Lance Ledbetter is a genius who has an amazing ability to actually produce solid, physical results from his passions. The design of Susan Archie was also incredible, and I not only recognized them as kindred souls, but had the notion of pushing them toward book publishing in addition to their sound recording projects. It certainly was a natural fit. I wrote them, sent some images and flew down with a huge file of photos. On my first visit, I left them in their hands.

4) The well-known writer Luc Sante has prepared a preface and short introduction to your book. How did he become involved, and describe what you think drew him to this particular work?

The project began long before Luc was involved. I had initially thought a prominent religious figure should do the introduction and essay and didn't anticipate having trouble finding one. One day I showed the collection of original photos to Brian Wallis, the bright and innovative director of the International Center of Photography in New York, and he immediately recognized their historical value. He put my donation of the originals to the collection into motion. Later, he happened to ask if I had seen "Luc's show" which was an exhibit of ephemera and photos he found interesting, and apparently it contained a few baptism scenes.

I was familiar with Sante's music essays and reporting, and had read his landmark book Low Life. I knew Luc was a wonderful writer, then learned he was a professor of photography at Bard College....AND that Lance Ledbetter at Dust to Digital had sold him previous releases, including Goodbye Babylon. The fit was kismet.

5) When people went to "wade in the water," what do you think they were experiencing? How do your photographs capture (or not capture) that? What about the participants standing on the banks, or on the bridge overpasses overlooking the water?

As I mention is the book, I have always felt performers and artists work harder when they are working for the Lord. Years ago, when I was meeting and encouraging folk artists and primitive painters, they would ask "what should I paint" and I always suggested something from the Bible. Everyone knows the stories and everyone immediately visualizes their favorite scene the minute you suggest it.

I grew up next to Lake Michigan. Living close to a body of water is in itself a deep, moving experience. Like a turtle you place on the ground, I always sense the direction of the nearest lake. Add a touch of spiritual cleansing and you've got a highly personal AND public event. All the senses are at work...the individual feels it physically and emotionally at the exact same time. They are nervous, anticipatory, shocked and relieved. The viewers senses are also working...they share the passion, they feel the sun, they hear the splash, the preacher's powerful words, the crying out, the shout. What I admire most about the production of Take Me To The Water is how Lance was able to PERFECTLY combine an aural melding of the events with the visual. It is uncanny and not only a testament to his skill, but I think never done as well with a physical book.

6) When I first blogged about this book, a skeptic in the comments section wrote the following: "Can someone help me out with the theology here? These are churches that don't believe in baptismal regeneration and that one "chooses" Jesus, making them far outside the mainstream of historic Christianity. If the baptism effectively "means" nothing, why is it so important that immersion be used? --Clueless Lutheran stuck in the Bible Belt" How would you answer that query?

One should look at the images. Can anyone look at the faces of those emerging from the water here and say it means nothing? I believe at the moment captured in each photo, it means EVERYTHING.

7) How would you suggest first-time viewers/listeners approach the CD of music included with the volume? I ask because I'm an fan of these recordings, but those who aren't coming with that kind of knowledge may find them strange, distant, and primitive (as do my students). What would you saw as part of a "listening guide" to your photographs?

Pictures strike one immediately. Eyes being our first line of defense, an image is immediate. Music takes a bit longer. One has to reach a certain level of familiarity to experience it...part of the reason music works is that on repeated listenings we can anticipate the sounds we heard before. Even I like the selections here the more I listen to them. I guarantee after a few listenings, "Sister Lucy Lee" will make all the sense in the world, and if the quiver in Washington Phillips voice as he describes the differences between denominations doesn't reach you... just give it another play. As for a guide, the track listings and notes Lance wrote are astounding. Many of these performers are today genuine cyphers...but he finds them. We truly did create a little world there. The music stands alone on many levels, the photographs stand alone on many levels...but together the become even greater.

8) Speaking on this blog specifically to those interested in American religious history, explain what you think is most important about your work, and how perhaps classroom teachers might be able to use your work.

As I hope to do a few lectures and presentations, I am actually trying to figure that out now!


Randall at: July 9, 2009 at 9:20 AM said...

Fascinating interview. I'll need to track the book down.

I love Goodbye Babylon.

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